Physical Energy by G F Watts

G F Watts and plaster model of Physical Energy

Physical Energy is a monumental equestrian sculpture which Watts began to work on in the early 1880s and continued to develop up until his death on 1 July 1904. The bold and angular plaster model now on display in the Sculpture Gallery has been cast in bronze on four separate occasions.

Claiming to ‘paint ideas, not things’, Watts often used a unique symbolic language in his painting and sculpture. This is the case with his allegorical work Physical Energy: rather than a representation of a specific horse and rider, this sculpture symbolises a broader idea. It was intended to express ‘man as he ought to be – a part of creation, of cosmos in fact, his great limbs to be akin to the rocks and to the roots, and his head to be the sun’ [1].

Physical Energy has assumed a range of different meanings, both within and after the artist’s lifetime. While initially conceived as an allegorical work, the sculpture became associated with the commemoration of Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), the imperialist financier and statesman central to the expansion of the British Empire in Southern Africa.

The sculpture has also been used as a logo for the Labour publishing company in the 1920s, and the 1950s food brand Energen Foods. Since 1960, it has presided over Watts Gallery as the weathervane on the gallery roof.

Strikingly angular in form, Physical Energy is a significant and innovative example of British sculpture and public art at the turn of the twentieth century, pointing the way to modernist sculpture. Ever since the plaster model was first installed in the Sculpture Gallery at Watts Gallery in 1907, Physical Energy has symbolised the artist's lifelong commitment to create ambitious, large-scale art for the nation.

[1] Mary Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist’s Life: Writings on Art, vol. II (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912), p.265.

The plaster model

Cast 1 (1904)

Cast 2 (1907)

Cast 3 (1959)

Cast 4 (2017)

The Physical Energy project